The UK’s first theatre, imaginatively named The Theatre, was opened in 1576, and the first public concert venue, a room in a private house in White Friars, followed almost one hundred years later in 1672.
Of course, audience behaviour was known to be far more casual in those days and the venues were nothing like the iconic spaces we are used to seeing today, but, nonetheless, they provided purpose-built spaces where the arts could flourish and a captive, engaged public could be found. Shakespeare’s plays were first performed in the late 16th century and the celebrated composers such as Handel and Mozart were to play in some of Britain’s first public music venues in the mid-1700s.
What is sometimes overlooked is how much these venues’ physical characteristics and unwritten social rules determined the theatre and music being produced at the time. Why write music for an orchestra larger than any available concert hall? Why write a play which demands silence from the audience when you know that you won’t get it?
Fast-forward 1500 years and a new set of challenges face our artists and cultural institutions. Whilst audiences are less likely to talk through a performance or throw rotten fruit at an actor, they now have myriad options for discovering, consuming and participating in cultural experiences, both on and offline. The constraints of time and space in performance are loosening and the emergence of the experience economy, which has seen both an increased demand for experiences over possessions, and the commercialisation and curation of many more aspects of our social lives, has changed audiences’ expectations and spending patterns.
The next phase of evolution and growth for the sector relies on our ability to understand these new nuances in audience behaviour and to produce events which can both cater to these tastes and make a greater contribution towards a diversified income model, with the sector being challenged to rely less on subsidised income.
So, how can we better understand these nuances in audience behaviour and, once we have this information, what should we do with it? To help address these questions, Nesta is working with a consortium of performing arts, technology and academic partners to research and develop new cultural experiences, experimenting with online and gaming platforms and immersive technologies. This will allow us to develop augmented experiences for a live audience and non-location-dependent experiences which are accessible to a larger online market, exploring both the depth and breadth of audience experience. Embracing the opportunities offered by these technologies and exploring how theatre or music might evolve for extended reality environments is an exciting proposition, just like that which faced the early innovators in these art forms when building new venues to match their ambitions.
For Nesta and our partners at i2 Media Research, this is an ideal opportunity to build on the work we did last year, developing a toolkit to evaluate user experience and audience impact in immersive environments, which has provided a framework with which to gauge the many different ways which audiences engage with and value cultural experiences that they have, including experiential, cultural and economic indicators. We will be working with the consortium over the next two years to continue refining this toolkit, looking at ways to make the survey instrument shorter and more precise and testing it at different stages of project development. By doing so, we hope to achieve two things:
Our first test took place with lead project partner, the Royal Shakespeare Company, who partnered with US-based spatial computing company Magic Leap in 2018 to create a mixed reality production of the Seven Ages of Man from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The production officially premiered at Sundance 2019, and we were fortunate to be able to offer attendees at Nesta’s Creative Economy summit in March the opportunity to experience it too. It was also a great chance for us to gather some data from the audience, which we could compare to other productions the toolkit has been used on since its development.
It should be noted that this was a very small sample size (56 respondents) and, being at a creative economy conference, respondents were part of a highly culturally engaged audience. Nonetheless, analysis of the data produced some interesting insights. Using the Van Westendorp price sensitivity method, we estimated audiences’ willingness to pay at £8 for the experience. Given this was a three-minute production and that testing thus far has suggested that depth of engagement is positively related to the length of the experience, this demonstrates the quality of the production, and starts to put parameters around potential value creation.
As the project progresses, we’ll be blogging here to share findings and trends we identify across different projects. We’ll also reflect on our experience of developing the toolkit and other methodologies we experiment with for measuring audience experience. In the next few months we’ll be working with Philharmonia Orchestra to help evaluate their Virtual Orchestra experience and will also be testing passive measures of audience engagement with Manchester International Festival at their DYSTOPIA987 project with grime artist Skepta.